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Mr. Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Additive Manufacturing Scenario

Underground Economy

An old friend introduces Ambrose Turner to a new world of underground manufacturing and 3D printing.

2060. In 50 years, many factories will be underground, out of sight, and highly automated. Thousands of humans will compete in a worldwide co-creation environment for cash prizes to design specialized components that can be 3D printed in such facilities or at customer locations. When Ambrose Turner, a turbine blade manufacturing specialist, is brought back to life after 40 years in an induced coma, he visits the site of his factory and discovers a new world of manufacturing, but also experiences a terrifying encounter with a bionic security system..

It was like experiencing death. The last thing I remember is a truck spinning out of control on an icy road as it raced at me, the shriek of multiple safety system alarms, and the thought that this could not possibly happen – not with all the automated guidance features, the driverless technology, the predictive load-to-road programs, the…Well, that was 2020, and it was lights out for me.

For forty years I was dead to the world; obliviously suspended in the featureless, automated, insurance policy-financed panorama of an induced coma; one 35-year-old, single, childless turbine blade manufacturing engineer less. Adiós, muchachos!

And then, one day, the technology to bring me back had arrived – and been applied. I could feel myself swimming upwards as if out of a bottomless well. My eyes opened. Androgynous doctors swam into view. “Mr. Turner…Ambrose…how are you feeling?” they had said.

Printing Cells.

During the following days, as my mind had cleared and my body regained its strength, I learned about the bone and organ regeneration techniques that had restored me to health. Robotic systems outfitted with extraordinarily fine needles had aspirated the damaged parts of several of my organs and bones, produced in-vivo scaffolding for the replacement structures, and then colonized the scaffoldings with my own stem cells using 3D printing. Layer by layer, in a process that we used to call additive manufacturing when I was a young engineer, the robotic arms had tirelessly rebuilt parts of my body from the inside out.

Considering my manufacturing background, all of this was an exciting introduction to the world I had woken up in. But I have to admit that what I really wanted to know about was hands-on stuff – things like turbine blades, metals, coatings, manufacturing techniques… and Giuseppe, my old compadre in the blade design department. What the hell had happened to him over the last 40 years? He too would be in his mid-70s by now – almost retirement age according to the “re-socialization” information they had bombarded me with at the hospital.

Empty Highways.

“Let you out on good behavior, did they?” Giuseppe gave me his old wry smile as he slapped me on the back when we met two weeks later. It was a lovely spring morning and we were on our way across the glistening Scottish countryside to the site of our old manufacturing plant. How pristine and free of industrial blemishes the landscape is, I thought as our vehicle glided along a surprisingly empty motorway and turned off at our exit. A few moments later we pulled up at what might have been a large picnic area. A voice from the dashboard announced “access granted,” after which the vehicle rolled forward and parked.

Invisible Factory.

“What are we stopping here for?” I asked, looking around at the gently-sloping hills dotted with grazing sheep, wild hare, and the occasional red deer. The place reminded me of one of those “cageless” safari zoos, like the one I had visited in San Diego as a child where a baboon had suddenly lunged at me. I felt a little nervous.

“You’ll see,” said Zeppy, as I used to call him. We got out of the car and strolled across the cropped, wild grass, scattering small huddles of rabbits.

After a few meters we came to one of several grassy mounds that dotted the field. I still didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. But then Zeppy squatted and put his palm on the rounded surface. To my amazement, the mound became transparent. Suddenly, I realized, we were at the edge of a huge, low bubble, looking down into a world of frenetic activity. “Welcome to our new fab!” Zeppy announced. “She entered service just a few years ago – ’54 I believe.”

Underground World.

I must have looked so astonished that Zeppy added, “Oh, sorry, old pal. Forgot to explain. These bubbles – tough as steel, but they turn transparent for authorized personnel. Stuff’s all based on biometrics – in this case an embedded electrophoretic layer that recognizes fingerprints and genetic signatures. The bubbles allow on-the-spot inspection of key areas – if anyone bothers to come out here, that is.”

I crouched down next to Zeppy and peered into the cavernous facility. “You mean this is it?” I asked. “The production center for our turbine blades?”

“Yes, sir!” said Zeppy, with a touch of pride in his voice. “Acres and acres of it under these lovely fields.”

Co-creation Workers.

“And the workers?” I asked, remembering in a flash of memory from 40 years ago Linda, the knockout production chief who had joined the company just before my accident. “The offices? The parking lots? Where is everybody?”

“Hold on, pal,” said Zeppy. “We have hundreds of workers. But you won’t see many of them around here. Most of them do their stuff at home. Same thing’s happening at other companies. The result is – as you noticed – empty roads, more open space, and more wildlife. We have groups from all over the world competing against each other for our business. We call it co-creation. They work on contracts covering everything from refined particle-spray-field dynamics in additive manufacturing processes for blade surfaces to hybrid components made of multiple substances, optimized logistics, robot sensor-community hyper-perception, service prognostics, integrated security; you name it, we’re doing it!”

“Now you’re talkin’, buddy,” I said, finally starting to piece together a picture of what had happened over so many years. “

From Powders to Turbine Blades.

“Take a look down here, for instance,” Zeppy went on. He pointed to an area directly below us where a series of transparent machines were connected by what seemed to be a glowing tube of pure energy. “What you’re looking at,” he said, “is how we add meat, so to speak, to the skeleton of each blade. We start with a pre-formed core made in another part of the plant to guarantee structural integrity. Then, in a series of steps, ceramic-, metal-, and carbon-nanoparticles are digitally sprayed onto the core. It’s similar to the additive 3D printing processes we were working on before your accident, but thousands of times more precise – and effortless to individualize to the customer’s needs. The result is an abrasion-resistant crystalline atomic structure that’s great for burning the pure hydrogen gas produced by wind- and solar-powered electrolyzers.”

“So the famous hydrogen economy finally arrived!” I exclaimed.

“Exactly,” said Zeppy. “And our manufacturing technology for high-temperature blades made it possible. But there’s more,” he added. “During this process, microscopic sensors are laser-embedded throughout the blades, allowing each blade to deliver continuous information about its condition throughout its lifetime. Finally, to avoid micro deformations and materials contamination, the blades pass from machine to machine not on a conveyer belt, but in a powerful magnetic field that also functions as a continuous inspection system.”

“I’m starting to see the light,” I said. “But how do parts and products get in and out?”

“Almost everything’s underground,” said Zeppy. “Materials are piped in. We’re talking very specialized powders. Finished products are shipped out via pneumatic pipes to a distribution center.”

“And localized repairs and components – can customers do that kind of thing on their own now?” I asked.

“Oh, of course,” said Zeppy. “If a blade needs resurfacing, for instance, the utility operator’s robotic systems will add a layer of whatever material is needed on the spot. And they can manufacture new components locally as well. What’s more, if they come up with new ideas through their own co-creation…”

Noticing a movement from the corners of our eyes, we looked up. Only a few meters away stood a large, gray wolf, it’s sharp, white teeth glistened in the morning sunlight. I froze in fear. “Not to worry,” said Zeppy. “It’s only one of our bionic security systems. It recognizes me.”

“And me?” I asked, as a hair-raising growl began to issue from the beast’s throat.

“That could be a problem,” said Zeppy.

Arthur F. Pease